Susan Collins entered the 2020 election cycle as the Democrats’ top target in the U.S. Senate—and ended it besting them again, winning a fifth term representing the state of Maine.
On Wednesday, Collins announced in Maine that her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon, called her to concede the race. With over 80 percent of the vote in, Collins was leading Gideon by eight points—and with more than 50 percent of the vote, the senator avoids a second ballot under Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, which Republicans were worried would deny her victory.
Collins’ victory all but ensures that the GOP will retain its hold on the Senate.
By withstanding a historic onslaught of attack ads and an opponent who raised a staggering $70 million, Collins—who trailed in most pre-election public polls—may wind up as the 2020 election’s ultimate political survivor. And her victory ensures she will remain relevant on Capitol Hill for at least another six years: Regardless of how the races for the White House and the Senate majority shake-out, Collins’ status as one of the last true swing votes in the Senate is unlikely to change.
At first blush, it seemed the politics of 2020 presented an inescapable vise for Collins. Elected since 1996 in independent-minded Maine as a compromise-oriented centrist, Collins faced an increasingly polarized electorate where many voters began to care less about her history of policymaking and more about her most controversial votes and tortured relationship with President Donald Trump.
Gideon, Maine’s state House Speaker, entered the race fueled by the backlash to Collins’ 2018 vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Liberals around the country made it their mission to oust Collins after that vote, and for over a year, that energy fueled Gideon’s fundraising hauls, which broke records for Maine.
Another Supreme Court fight late in the 2020 election season seemed to put Collins in even shakier political territory. After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, Collins said that she would not support filling the vacancy before Nov. 3, and was the only GOP senator to vote against Amy Coney Barrett in the final vote on Oct. 26—the first time Collins has ever voted against a nominee. The move seemed poised to please almost no one, with liberal-leaning voters already against her because of Kavanaugh, and Trump himself railing against Collins at rallies and on Twitter for opposing his prized high court pick.
Despite it all, what may have rescued Collins was a quality that few other GOP incumbents on the ballot this fall could claim: a distinct political brand that enabled her to endure the strong anti-Republican tide nationally and the burgeoning resistance to her back home.
The senator’s record of breaking with Trump did not cost her much of any support among the state’s hard-line GOP base. And while Democrats—once a key part of Collins’ double-digit victories in Maine—largely fled to Gideon, the Democrat was unable to sway enough of the independent voters who have traditionally backed Collins and did so again this year.